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Powell’s Q&A: Jonathan Coe

Describe your latest book.
My latest book is a novel called The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. It takes as its starting point some of the new ways of communicating with each other that technology now allows us — texting, social networking, talking to the voice on your GPS — but in fact it is not "about" any of those things. It is about our quest to find the greatest fulfillment in the world — intimacy with another human being — and the kind of self-knowledge you need in order to be ready for that. My previous novel was rather serious, but this time I have decided to go down the comic route, exploring this theme through the story of a salesman who is sent alone on a doomed mission from one end of the U.K. to the other by car, as part of a misguided marketing campaign. This mission becomes a journey into his own past, at the end of which he is forced to confront secrets about himself that he has been avoiding. Ultimately the novel questions whether we need to construct fictions about ourselves in order to survive.

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
I would like more people to read Rosamond Lehmann. Between 1928 and 1953 she wrote six amazing novels, and was one of the more famous English literary figures before disappearing into relative obscurity and then being revived again by the feminist publisher Virago in the early '80s. Her novels usually tell stories of women whose passions get the better of them, who form painful and unsuitable attachments — love in Rosamond Lehmann's books is always full of pain, but what raises them above the level of mere "romantic novels" is her magnificent prose. Her language is rich and sensual, and she writes superbly about landscape: both the semi-pastoral landscape of interwar England and the troubled landscape of the heart. The best place to start is with her first novel, Dusty Answer.

Writers are better liars than other people: true or false? Why, or not?
Yes, better in every sense. That's to say, "better" in that we tend to be very good at it (the lies we spin in our novels can be very complex and protracted), but also "better" in that the lies we tell have a moral justification. I distrust most forms of writing — especially the "memoir," which is usually full of half-lies. And of course the language we hear around us all the time — political language, the language of advertising, the discourse of the marketplace — is corrupted beyond belief. In this context, I think that literature (and the novel in particular) retains a kind of purity. It's based on a contract between writer and reader in which the reader accepts, from the very first word, that everything she is told is going to be a pack of lies from start to finish. Therefore, there's no misunderstanding, no attempt to pull the wool over anybody's eyes. Fiction offers us one of the few honest spaces left in a compulsively dishonest world.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer
My favourite opening sentence in any novel comes from a British writer, Paul McDonald. His novel Kiss Me Softly, Amy Turtle is set in Walsall, a pretty depressing town in the English Midlands where it always seems to be raining. He writes: "Waking up in Walsall is like waking up after surgery and being told that the operation was not a success."

How do you relax?
I relax by playing the piano, or composing little pieces of music on the home studio in my study. I like to write tuneful, melancholy, multi-layered snippets purely for my own pleasure. Sometimes I play them back when I'm writing, but I don't think they will ever be heard outside the four walls of my home.

Why do you write?
Because it's all I can do. Because I started when I was eight and I can't seem to break the habit. Because I always want to give a voice to every point of view and the novel is the only form in which you can do that. Because I need the money. Because I'm unhappy when I'm not writing. Because one day I would like to write something really good and the only way to get closer to that is to keep — as Samuel Beckett said — "failing better."

Talk about your vision of the ideal life.
I've just finished writing a children's version of Gulliver's Travels for an Italian publisher, and I was struck once again by Swift's vision of Utopia at the end of that book. His ultra-sane and intelligent horses, the Houyhnhms, live in a society entirely governed by reason. They have no war, no conflict, no violence. Resources are shared and nobody lives in poverty. Apart from a certain coolness in their relationships (they are not an emotional species) it all seems perfectly admirable — just what Western society should aspire to. The Houyhnhnms have no word for lying because they cannot see the point of using language to express something that is untrue. As a result they have no humour, and no literature. Maybe we will get there ourselves some day — creating a world which is so well organised and so benevolent that we don't need jokes any more to express our frustrations, or novels to hold reality at bay.

Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
In film, my great hero is Billy Wilder, an absolute master of narrative architecture. I can think of few examples of storytelling as graceful and elegant as The Apartment. I especially love his later films — such as Avanti! and Fedora — which are little-known and not much appreciated. I'm also one of those people who've kept the faith with Woody Allen: everything he does is fine with me, even the misfires. In music my great love remains early twentieth-century composers like Ravel and Stravinsky — writing at the time when tonality had become rich and complex but not been abolished altogether.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.

Five Great Serious Comic Novels:
I love to laugh when I'm reading, but I also like my comedy to have a sharper, darker edge — just ready to tip over into tragedy. So I like P. G. Wodehouse, for example, but he's not one of my favourites, because after a while it feels like you've eaten a whole box full of Turkish Delight and forgotten to balance it out with something more nourishing. Here are five novels (actually four novels and one collection) which always make me laugh out loud, but also leave me with a tangy aftertaste reflecting the fundamental sadness and strangeness of human life.

The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien
The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin by David Nobbs
Watt by Samuel Beckett
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Selected Stories by Ring Lardner

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Jonathan Coe's awards include the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger, the Prix Médicis Étranger, and, for The Rotters Club, the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize. He lives in London with his wife and their two daughters.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Rotters' Club (Vintage...
    Used Trade Paper $6.50
  2. The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim Used Hardcover $12.95
  3. Dusty Answer Used Trade Paper $9.00

  4. The Third Policeman (John F. Byrne...
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  5. Watt (53 Edition) Used Trade Paper $8.00
  6. Catch-22
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  7. Lardner: Selected Stories (Penguin...
    Used Trade Paper $7.95

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